Judge dismisses suit on Okla. execution access
Dismissed lawsuit filed by media organizations seeking greater access to execution of Oklahoma death row inmates
By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by media organizations seeking greater access to the execution of Oklahoma death row inmates, ruling that the state's death penalty protocols do not violate the First Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed in August by The Oklahoma Observer and the Guardian US news organizations, as well as two journalists who work for the organizations, after the April 29 execution of inmate Clayton Lockett. Lockett writhed, moaned and clenched his teeth before he was pronounced dead about 43 minutes after his execution began.
Prison officials lowered a shade 16 minutes after Lockett's execution started, blocking witnesses' view of the process. The lawsuit alleged the media should have greater access to witnessing an execution and opposed new protocols implemented since Lockett's execution that reduce the number of media witnesses and give the prisons' director the ability to limit what they see and hear.
In a 25-page order, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton rejected assertions by the media organizations that their representatives have a constitutional right to view and hear the entire execution process from beginning to end. But Heaton gave the outlets 14 days to amend their lawsuit in an effort to buttress their legal claims.
"A conclusion that the protocol does not violate the Constitution does not necessarily mean it is good policy or that it is the best approach in the circumstances," Heaton wrote.
"Plaintiffs make a compelling argument that, given the nature of the interests involved and in light of Oklahoma's experience with the Lockett execution, a more open and expansive policy of access and disclosure may be desirable," the decision said.
The organizations' attorney, Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the media outlets have not decided whether to amend their lawsuit or appeal Heaton's decision.
The organizations disagree with the level of secrecy that shrouds Oklahoma's execution process for death rowinmates, Henderson said.
"The court had an opportunity here to protect the right of the press, but ultimately the rights of the citizens of Oklahoma," he said. "The level of secrecy the state is bringing to this process is unprecedented, and it's disturbing."
The lawsuit alleged media representatives chosen to observe Lockett's execution were denied the opportunity to watch him entering the execution chamber and see his intravenous lines being prepared and inserted. The viewing shade was lifted as Lockett's execution began but prison officials lowered it again in the middle of the procedure.
The director of the state's prison system, Robert Patton, later called off the execution, but Lockett was declared dead about 10 minutes later. An autopsy determined he died of a heart attack as a result of the lethal drugs that were administered to him.
Separately on Friday, Patton told a federal judge that Oklahoma has the drugs it needs to execute fourinmates early next year and plans to administer the same three drugs used in Lockett's execution, but with an increased dose.
Patton said the agency plans to use the exact formula used successfully in 11 executions in Florida, one that he believes is "humane."
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot plans to rule Monday in the lawsuit, in which lawyers for 21 death rowinmates say one of the three drugs, the sedative midazolam, presents a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.